You can almost smell the set in the Phoenix Theatre's production of Bruce Graham's play "North of the Boulevard" (running through March 9).
Trip's Auto is the kind of place where the desk chair is held together with tape, the lights seem ready to short circuit at any moment, and outsiders are never quite sure who works there and who's just hanging out. It's not mentioned, but I'm guessing Trip's prices are pretty cheap. He's no saint, but he's trying to do the right thing.
But doing the right thing is becoming more complicated. And a neighbor's tree pushing its way through his wall is among the least of his problems.
I had the pleasure of seeing a number of Graham plays during his stint with the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays and his latest brings back memories of some of the better of them. His characters feel as if they've been around long before the play began and he creates an atmosphere where the humor and the tension come from their inability to control each other while they try to make use of their own damaged moral compasses.
Smart, humane, and at times very funny, "North of the Boulevard" may call to mind some of the work of David Mamet. But Graham's rhythm is different. And the Phoenix foursome (Joshua Coomer, Rich Komenich, Ben Rose, and Bill Simmons) sometimes finds that rhythm, sometimes not. The early part of the play, where anecdotes, jokes, and details can seem random, is essential to establish this world and its people, but on the Thursday I attended, it often seemed rushed, as if the goal was to move as quickly as possible to the end-of-the-first-act incident that propels the action.
When it paused to let its characters breath, the production worked beautifully, finding the humor, humanity, and suspense in their desperation.